DENVER – The Federal Highway Administration has concluded its investigation into a civil rights complaint over plans to expand and cover part of I-70 in Denver, stating the proposed plan is the best available option despite possible negative impacts to the surrounding neighborhoods.
San Francisco-based law firm Earthjustice filed the complaint last fall on behalf of Candi CdeBaca, a community activist and resident of the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood. The complaint argued that the Central 70 project, which would widen the freeway and cover part of it with a park, would disproportionately affect the majority-Hispanic Elyria-Swansea and Globeville neighborhoods.
Some of the main concerns surrounding the project include air pollution in what is already one of Denver’s most polluted areas, as well as noise from increased traffic.
In a letter explaining its findings, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) said the Central 70 plan would actually reduce pollution and traffic noise in the long run by alleviating congestion and reducing traffic on neighborhood streets.
The FHWA did find, however, that the project will have some negative effects on the surrounding neighborhoods due to displaced residents and that CDOT could have done a better job communicating with neighbors throughout the process.
Despite these problems, federal authorities determined the partial-cover plan is the best option for solving the aging I-70 viaduct’s problems:
“Based on the available data and information, FHWA finds that there is insufficient evidence that the Project, itself – and the Respondent’s advancement of the Project when it approved the 2017-202 STIP – will create adverse, disparate impacts. FHWA finds, however, that even if the selection of the preferred alternative would result in adverse, disparate impacts, the Respondent has provided a substantial legitimate justification for its actions and shown that a less discriminatory alternative has not been identified.”
In a statement provided to Denver7, CdeBaca expressed disappointment with the federal government’s decision:
“While we didn’t expect much from one of the three entities who entered into the Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) to allow the expansion to move forward, we expected more from their Civil Rights Department in DC. Our community is extremely disappointed in the findings of the FHWA and especially the write up that literally cut and pasted CDOT's own words. Unfortunately this decision is in complete alignment with the Trump rhetoric about infrastructure and his disregard for human rights, sustainability, and healthy communities. In a time when civil rights and environmental protections are being eroded nationally, FWHA missed an opportunity to protect civil rights of Latinos in one of the oldest neighborhoods in Denver.”
CDOT released a statement praising the FHWA findings:
"After so many years of being deeply immersed in studying a solution for I-70, CDOT welcomed this clear-eyed review of our track record in working with the communities most impacted by this project. This was a productive and beneficial process and we are pleased to receive this positive affirmation of the work we’ve done and the commitments we've made to local residents."
CdeBaca said a lawsuit the Sierra Club filed last year challenging the air quality standards CDOT used to approve the project is still pending, as are several other legal challenges.